Naomi's Italian Diary, Part 3

Naomi's Italian Diary
Part 3

Siena: Palio Day!!


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2 July San Gimignano to Siena: I got up very early in order to take the first train to Siena, so that I could see the morning prova at 8:45. I dumped my backpack at the station and head for the piazza. I get a great place along the inside fence right in front of the starting point! As yesterday, before the race, the carabinieri ride round the track. They were so close to me I am nearly hit by the swords they are carrying! Wow, that was exciting! Then, during the prova itself, the horses race by so close and so fast, again I am nearly hit. It was amazing! I can't wait until the real race, later this afternoon! I decide to stay in the piazza all day in order to reserve my place. Next to me are a guy and girl from Milano. The girl speaks English quite well and they try to explain the details of the race to me, especially the rivalries between the contrade, and some of the history of the race.

They tell me that Tartuga (the tortoise) is the favorite because of their horse, called Uberto, who is very good. Of the ten horses racing, only 3 have run in previous Palios. The other seven have never run here before, so they are quite inexperienced. The prove -- practice runs -- are held so the horses and riders can get accustomed to the track. The horses are privately-owned and the owners are paid to let them run in the race. The horses are drawn at random by each contrada, but the jockeys are hired. They are mostly Sardinian, because I am told (by a Sardinian) they are small people.

During the morning I made a trip to a shop to buy some food and drinks and I met a girl who lives in Siena. She is called Catherine and has an American mother and Italian father. She and I talk for ages and she explains more about the Palio and how the Sienese take it so seriously. She is from Tartuga and she will not speak to friends from other contrade until the race is over, because if they begin to talk about the race they will begin to argue. Married couples from different contrade will often split up during the race, staying at parents' or friends' houses to avoid conflict. People used to only marry within their contrada, so this has only become a problem now that people marry freely. Even if you might move to a house in a different contrada, you will always belong to the one in which you were born; you will never change your allegience! People who have moved away often come back to spend the night before the race in their own contrada. If a mixed couple have children, the children can choose which contrada to join, and cannot later change.

Apparently Tartuga has not won the Palio for the last 19 years, due to a series of bad luck incidents. The saying in Siena is that even if the other 9 horses fell down, they still could not be sure that Tartuga would win! This year they have the best horse, but who knows? Catherine said that it depended on whether the right people had been paid enough. Bribery is commonplace. Bringe the other riders to lose, or to attack your enemy. Pay anyone and everyone. The horses are doped but it is "dirty pool" to actually attempt to harm the horse of another contrada. Even though, each horse has a 24-hour guard on its stable. Just about everything and anything goes here as long as it is not done publicly. If a jockey loses on purpose because he took money from another contrada, he might be killed if his contrada finds out. People take this race seriously!

The Palio is run twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August and the competion is just as fierce and just as exciting for the second race as for the first. The Palio is for Siena, not for tourists and even if no one came from outside of Siena, it would still be run, as it has been for several hundred years, twice a year.

There are 17 contrade now, though there used to be more, but only 10 can run each time. It is always the 7 which did not run the previous year plus three picked at random. So this time, the 7 horses which did not run last July will race, plus three others who did race. In August, the 7 which did not run last August will race, plus 3 random picks. The August random runners are not yet known and will be drawn later on. This system is an attempt to make sure every contrada runs every year, but some end up running every time due to the random draw. Part of Tartuga's problem is that they have hardly been drawn at random, so they have run relatively few times over the last 19 years!

I head back to the piazza. Whew, it's hot! But not too hot. It is not as unpleasant as it could be, because there is so much excitement and short trips out of the piazza to check on what is happening within the contrade. Preparations are already underway for the victory feast that one group will celebrate! There is a fountain in the middle of the piazza and people occasionally go over and douse themselves with refreshing water.

At about 4:30 pm a man goes up to the top of the Torre di Mangia and begins to ring the bell, very slowly and rhythmically, tolling, tolling, tolling, by hand. He will continue to do so for the next three hours, until the race begins.

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All text and photographs Copyright 1995-2001 Naomi S. Smith